Organizing Tactics to Defeat Union Busters by Phil Cohen


By Phil Cohen

Corporations spend millions of dollars on union busting firms; experts at dividing workers, annihilating hope, and overwhelming organizers.  But an equally ruthless organizer supported by dedicated local leaders can defeat them at their own game.  Fear is a sword that cuts both ways.

What Terrifies Management?

When outgunned by a superior enemy, one must identify their vulnerabilities and how to exploit them.  Behind smug exteriors and lofty mission statements, the driving force behind every corporation is fear.  Executives fear both their customers and lending institutions, understanding that alienating either will result in falling stock prices and eventually getting fired.  The secret is driving a wedge between companies and those who hold them accountable.

The cornerstone of most campaigns against union busters is documenting their illegal activity to the NLRB, resulting in a substantial complaint.  Unfortunately, management attorneys can appeal for years and the inevitable penalties are but a slap on the wrist….unless one understands how to snowball this into something more formidable.

A complaint by the Unites States government for violating federal labor law provides the perfect opportunity to undermine management’s reputation as pillars of the community by exposing their corruption.  This becomes a potent weapon in the right hands.

The first step is holding press conferences, with union spokesmen surrounded by workers.  It creates not only a great story but a photo-op.  Once you have media coverage, the weapon is loaded and decisions must be made about how to aim it.  Intel about your targets can be easily gathered by studying shipping labels, casually chatting with friendly supervisors, and contacting the international union’s research department.

When dealing with manufacturers supplying other companies, draft a polite, professional letter to large customers, signed by as many workers as possible. Say how much you value their business and feel obliged to inform them of the NLRB complaint and escalating labor dispute that if not resolved, will make it difficult to fulfill orders in a timely manner.  Include a press kit in the mailing. Submit a similar package to lending institutions, sharing regrets that your employer’s ability to meet debt obligations may soon be compromised.  I guarantee the phones of top executives will soon be swamped with concerned calls from those they answer to.

The tactic is somewhat different when fighting companies selling directly to the public.  Identify their primary marketing theme and generate conflicting publicity.  I once negotiated a first contract with a licensee of Serta Mattress while directing a campaign against the union busters they hired.  While studying Serta’s advertising, I noted their promotion of a wholesome, squeaky-clean image.

During my first meeting with workers, I learned they sometimes had to refurbish used mattresses that were sold to wholesalers who serviced migrant labor camps. To their disgust, the materials were occasionally stained with urine and other bodily fluids.  I’d just been handed the silver bullet.

Of course, none of the second-hand mattresses ever sold in department stores.  But advertising is all about image.  I held statewide press conferences, going into detail about this unsavory practice, along with the lengthy NLRB complaint issued for illegal union busting.  Mattress customers continued to see Serta and Sealy displayed side by side, but now with repulsive stories about Serta in back of their mind.  Shortly afterward, workers in thirty-one cities across America marched in protest of urine soaked mattresses.  Three weeks later, a great union contract was unanimously ratified.[1]

It’s all about the Stock Market

What better way could there be to draw blood from a hostile employer than to crash its stock value?  Unions should own a couple of shares in the stock of every company being fought or perceived as a future threat.  It allows representatives to attend annual share holder meetings.

I was engaged in a brutal three year fight against an illegal decertification at Highland Yarn Mills, a subsidiary of Texfi Industries.  Making full use of my discovery rights under the NLRA, I uncovered horrific health and safety violations, ultimately resulting in a Willful Citation by OSHA, and the highest fine for cotton dust violations in North Carolina history.

I attended Texfi’s annual shareholder meeting accompanied by two local union officers and a battery of television cameras.  I sat in the front row wearing a suit and tie, and rose at the appropriate time to address Chairman of the Board Terrell Sovey and my “fellow shareholders.”  I politely asked Sovey how he expected the serious workplace hazards and resulting casualties at the Highland plant to affect corporate liabilities and stock value over the coming year.  As he fumbled for an answer, the two workers circulated detailed documentation among shareholders while the cameras rolled.

Texfi stock fell the next morning.  It was a major victory in a campaign leading to the termination of all plant management, a new union contract, and NLRB precedent that further defines illegal union busting.

Health and safety is the ultimate bipartisan issue, as even conservatives don’t condone an unsafe work environment.

Work-to-Rule Campaigns

This is in essence a work slowdown without the company being able to prove it – if done smart and carefully.  It hurts the company economically almost as much as a strike, but with far less risk and no loss of income for workers. Unlike a strike, we can outlast them.

Employees are taught to perform their jobs by the book, according to specific protocols.  But on the shop floor, these methods prove to be cumbersome and unrealistic. They learn from co-workers how to cut corners without compromising quality, and produce at required levels.

During a work-to-rule campaign, workers revert to doing their jobs exactly as taught during training. They follow all regulations to the letter and thereby stall production. When questioned by management, employees explain they are mindfully performing their jobs as instructed.  (After all, management always knows best.) As you can imagine, the result is utter chaos.  Departments wait for expected work from elsewhere in the plant that is slow to arrive.

There’s a strategic discipline that must be maintained in order for this to be successful and not backfire:

  • No one can ever hint to management or untrustworthy workers that this is a slow-down.
  • Union reps must feign no knowledge of what’s occurring on the shop floor.
  • Don’t initiate the campaign at a public meeting. Work through trusted committee members and stewards, who in turn spread the word to workers they trust, and designate competent friends to do the same.
  • Workers must avoid insubordination. After some conversation, a supervisor may order a group of workers to return to their usual short cuts. Workers should act bewildered, but comply.  The tactics will remain in effect elsewhere in the plant and in a few days, they can resume working-to-rule.
  • Err on the side of not involving a worker if there’s any doubt about their loyalty or trustworthiness. (That includes having a big mouth.)
  • If only half the workforce participates, it will cripple the plant.
  • If an anti-union department doesn’t participate, they’ll still be left waiting for work.

Supplement these tactics with an informational picket line at dawn before shift start.  With a good crowd, you’ll get solid media coverage.  Let management think you’re on strike, but then report to work a minute before the bell (and work-to-rule.)  All of this provides great ammunition for the letter writing campaign previously discussed.

I’ve leveraged numerous companies to sign good contracts through this approach.  I never had one worker fired, or even disciplined.  (It’s unrealistic to discipline a whole department or even half of it, especially for doing their jobs exactly as instructed.)

While engaging in sophisticated strategies, don’t ignore the basics. Maintain shop floor presence through union t-shirts, stickers and frequent leaflets. Bolster employee morale while providing a frightening spectacle to the customer and bank officials you’ve been writing to, as they tour the plant.

Phil Cohen is Special Projects Coordinator for Workers United/SEIU and author of Fighting Union Busters in a Carolina Carpet Mill and The Jackson Project: War in the American Workplace. With 30 years in the field, he has developed considerable expertise in defeating professional union-busters.

Cartoon by Patricia Ford.